Film Festivals, Energy Drinks and Playing the Odds

Attending a film festival is exhausting. You race around town to screenings and stand in lines throughout the day. Then at night you run around town to parties, sometimes several of them.

I’m not about to complain. Leading a life in film is an immense privilege and I try to remind myself of it all the time. But there’s no question that festival-going can take its toll on your body. On more than one occasion at SXSW, I thought that there should be festival volunteers on 6th Street handing off Gatorade to badge holders. Kinda like a marathon, only minus the running.

Instead, in reality, the sponsors of film festivals are always trying to ply you with massive amounts of incredibly unhealthy stuff. Among the free “refreshments” offered at SXSW this year were cigarettes, fried fish, inordinate amounts of beer, whiskey and tequila, and an “energy” drink with so much caffeine that its container cautions to “limit intake to maximum one bottle per 4 hours.”

I’m not saying I didn’t partake of some of this stuff. I’m just… well, I’m the son of a nutritionist. I think about these things.

I also think about the health of film festivals and the filmmakers that they host. Seeing the long lines and sitting in (or being shut out of) the many sell-out screenings in Austin certainly confirmed that SXSW has a healthy prognosis.

For filmmakers, though, I’m less certain.

As the barriers to making a film continue to be lowered, I fully expect submissions to SXSW to double within three or four years. Assuming the number of films being programmed remains the same, the acceptance rate will drop to something like .5% or even lower. That’s not a typo. That’s half of one percent. SXSW is not alone in this; other, similarly prestigious festivals will have roughly the same odds of acceptance.

I grant you, the odds of getting your film into SXSW (1% this year) are better than, say, the odds of winning the Powerball Jackpot (1 in 195,249,054). But, then again, the cost to play is higher for festivals. I’m not just talking about festival entry fees. First you’ve got to make your film.

Similarly, the payout ratio for the Powerball ($1 for a chance at +/- $350,000,000) is far better than that of making a movie. Most filmmakers and their investors would love to just double their money. As we all know, many films don’t make their money back at all.

This isn’t an argument for quitting film and instead playing Powerball. Most people making films at this level aren’t solely in it for the money — they’re in it because they have stories to tell. At least, that’s why I’m in it.

But considering financial sustainability has to be part of the equation too. If it’s not, well… it’s not sustainable.

And part of that means that filmmakers these days need to ask tough questions both of themselves and of film festivals:

    When you consider the costs of festival entry fees, festival travel and lodging (if not provided), food, and promotion (posters, etc), how much are you paying, per head, for each audience member that saw your film?

    How much are you paying for each review or blog post that fest screenings generate about your film?

    If your film sells out a screening, where does that money go? Will you see a penny of it?

    Are you comfortable paying for people to pay others to see your film?

    In the final cost-benefit analysis, are festivals worth it?

    What do you get out of the deal?

I mean, of course, in addition to the free cigarettes, beer, and energy drinks.

We’ve known this for a while, of course, but it bears repeating: For the independent filmmaker, festivals used to be the answer. Now they’re the question.

11 Responses to “Film Festivals, Energy Drinks and Playing the Odds”

  1. Chris Hansen Says:

    Great post, Paul — I’m doing the same things you are and asking the same questions. No clear answers yet, but good to keep asking the questions as we strive to get our films seen.

  2. Jamie Maguire Says:

    Paul, you make a good point the arts and sustainability. It’s an age old challenge for anyone in the creative arts. I think that’s why they invented professorships — they allow you to pay the bills while plying your trade. Keep it up!

  3. Cory Says:

    Just a comment on the caffeine thing, thats actually a small amount of caffeine relative to other energy drinks, as the maximum is set to two drinks perday other than one every 4 hours..

  4. Paul Says:

    Cory: Now that’s what I call a helpful comment. Just so you know, the label I was reading was on a small (50ml?) sampler-sized bottle.

  5. Rhett Lewis Says:

    You hit it right on the head dude. Although, we saved a ton of money eating buffalo wings in some of the lounges at SXSW. We made it a goal to only eat free food.

  6. Julius Howard Bach Says:

    Excellent points! It is indeed getting ridiculously harder to get your film into Festivals, especially when Studios with deep pockets are starting to muscle in on even the smallest of Festivals. It is clear that a lot of these festivals should remove the word Independent from their titles and perhaps use names like “XYZ Film Festival willing to throw a bone to a few Indie film makers for inclusion into our clickish club” . It’s disheartening to know that so many good quality Indie films are passed over simply to make room for Big Budget films that use Festivals for their focus group feedback.

  7. David W Allen Says:

    I have to agree with you Paul. I was a producer on an Indy horror film and we did the festival circuit and I have to say while we did receive a lot of great feedback and support the deals that we had presented to us were embarrassing and structured so the distributor will be the one who makes the lions share from our blood sweat and tears.

    We have decided to self-distribute online now. I don’t know if you have had any experience with this but I feel it is the way to go for Indy film makers. The Internet is one way we can reach our audience and while we may gross as much as a distributor would, we will see more of a net return.

  8. More Thoughts On The New Film Festival Model | Truly Free Film Says:

    […] their friends.  There’s a lot of good thought going on about this, but when you see that filmmakers are questioning the very value of a film festival attendance, we can all discern that festivals are not offering enough value for the films that participate in […]

  9. Self Helpless Says:

    Truth. After about a month of wasting money, we quickly decided that the festival scene is not for Self Helpless. The whole situation is too expensive, with little for us to gain. Attending QIFF cost us about $1,200 and 4 days. If we had put all that money and all those days into marketing Self Helpless on the interwebs, we would have certainly generated more sales and interest. The payoff, for our movie, just isn’t worth the investment when it comes to festivals.

    If a festival covered travel and expenses, that would be a different story.

  10. FollowMyFilm Says:

    Your desire to question what is taken for granted is much appreciate! Critical thinking like this is what leads to change. Peace…

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